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Read an Excerpt from Anthony Shadid's New Memoir, "House of Stone"

    On Thursday, we will interview New York Times reporter Nada Bakri, wife of recently deceased, New York Times foreign correspondent, Anthony Shadid. Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack while covering the conflict in Syria. His newly published memoir, "House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East," documents his return to a small town in Lebanon to renovate his family’s ancestral home, which was built by his great-grandfather and damaged by an Israeli rocket in 2006. While repairing the house, Shadid discovers a lost Middle East.

    Below is an excerpt from House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, by Anthony Shadid. Copyright 2012 by Anthony Shadid. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    INTRODUCTION: BAYT

    The Arabic language evolved slowly across the millennia, leaving little
    undefined, no nuance shaded. Bayt translates literally as house, but its
    connotations resonate beyond rooms and walls, summoning longings
    gathered about family and home. In the Middle East, bayt is sacred. Empires
    fall. Nations topple. Borders may shift or be realigned. Old loyalties
    may dissolve or, without warning, be altered. Home, whether it be structure
    or familiar ground, is, finally, the identity that does not fade.

    In old Marjayoun, in what is now Lebanon, Isber Samara
    left a house that never demanded we stay or enter at all. It would
    simply be waiting, if shelter was necessary. Isber Samara left it for
    us, his family, to join us with the past, to sustain us, to be the setting
    for stories. After years of trying to piece together Isber’s tale, I like to
    imagine his life in the place where the fields of the Houran stretched
    farther than even the dreamer he was — a rich man born of a poor
    boy’s labors — could grasp.

    In an old photo handed down, Isber Samara’s heavy-seeming shoulders
    suggest the approach of the old man he would never become,
    but his expression retains a hint of mischief some might call youthful.
    More striking than handsome, his face is weathered from sun
    and wind, but his eyes are a remarkable Yemeni blue, rare among the
    Semitic browns of his landscape. Though the father of six, he seems
    beyond proper grooming. His hair, apparently reddish, is tousled; his
    mustache resembles an overgrown scattering of brush. Out to prove
    himself since he was a boy, Isber would one day come to believe that
    he had.

    By the time the photo of Isber and his family was taken, he was forty
    or so, but I am drawn more to the Isber that he became — a father, no
    longer so ambitious, parted from his children, whom he sent off to
    America to save their lives. I wonder if he pictured them and their
    descendants — sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters,
    on and on — moving through lives as unpredictable as his. Did he see
    us in years ahead, adrift , climbing the cracked steps and opening his
    doors?

    At Isber’s, the traveler is welcome, befitting the Bedouin tradition of
    hospitality that he inherited. The olive and plum trees stand waiting
    at this house of stone and tile, completed after World War I. The place
    remains in our old town where war has oft en stopped time and, like an
    image reflected in clear water, lingers as well in the minds of my family.
    We are a clan who never quite arrived home, a closely knit circle whose
    previous generations were displaced during the abandonment of our
    country decades ago. When we think of home, as origin and place, our
    thoughts turn to Isber’s house.

    Built on a hill, the place speaks of things Levantine and of a way
    of life to which Isber Samara aspired. It recalls a lost era of openness,
    before the Ottoman Empire fell, when all sorts drift ed through homelands
    shared by all. The residence stands in Hayy al-Serail, a neighborhood
    once as fi ne as any in the region, an enclave of limestone, pointed arches,
    and red tile roofs. The tiles here were imported from
    Marseilles and, in the 1800s, suggested international connections and
    cosmopolitan fashionableness. They were as emblematic of the style of
    the Levant as the tarbush hats worn by the Ottoman gentlemen who
    lived in the Hayy, where the silver was always polished and the coffee
    came oft en in the afternoon. Old patriarchs — ancient and dusty as
    the settees — wiped rheumy eyes with monogrammed handkerchiefs.
    Sons replaced fathers, carrying on treasured family names. Isber was
    not one so favored.

    In a place and time not known for self-invention, Isber created
    Isber. His extended family, not noteworthy, consisted of “less than
    twenty houses.” His furniture, though expensive and imported from
    Syria, was as recently acquired as his fortune, and his house stood out
    not just because of its newness. It was a place built with the labor of a
    rough-hewn merchant whose eye was distracted from accounts only
    by his wife, Bahija. It serves as a reminder of a period of rare cultivation
    and unimaginable tragedy; it announces what a well-intentioned
    but imperfect man can make of life. Isber’s creation speaks of what he
    loved and what sustained him; it reminds us that everyday places say
    much, quietly. The double doors of the entrance are tall and wide for
    men like Isber, not types to be shut in.

    Isber, whose daughter Raeefa gave birth to my father, was my great
    grandfather. I came of age with remembrances that conjured him
    back to life, tales that made him real and transported my family to his
    world, a stop gone missing on recent maps: Jedeidet Marjayoun. This
    is the way my family refers to our town, our hometown. Never Jedeida,
    never just Marjayoun. We use the full name, a bow of respect, since
    for us the place was the beginning. It was bayt, where we came to be.
    Settled by my forebears, Marjayoun was once an entrepôt perched
    along routes of trade plied by Christians, Muslims, and Jews which
    stitched together the tapestry of an older Middle East. It was, in essence,
    a gateway — to Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and Damascus,
    beyond Mount Hermon; to Jerusalem, in historic Palestine; and to
    Baalbek, the site of an ancient Roman town. As such, this was a place
    as cosmopolitan as the countryside offered. Its learning and sophistication
    radiated across the region.

    Yet lingering in small places is not in favor now; they no longer seem
    to fi t the world. Yes, Marjayoun is fading, as it has been for decades.
    It can no longer promise the attraction of market Fridays, when all
    turned out in their finery — women in dresses from Damascus, gentlemen
    with gleaming pocket watches brought from America. At night,
    there are only flickering lights, which even a desperate traveler could
    overlook. In the Saha, or town square, there are dusty things — marked
    down for decades — for sale. No merchants shine counters, or offer
    sherbets made from snow, or sell exotic tobaccos. The cranky sheikh
    who fi lled prescriptions, if he cared to, is no more. The town no longer
    looks out to the world, and it is far from kept up. Everywhere it is scattered
    with bits and pieces, newspapers from other decades, odd things
    old people save. Of course, no roads run through Marjayoun anymore.
    A town whose reach once spanned historic Syria, grasping Arish in the
    faraway Sinai Peninsula of Egypt before extending, yet farther, to the
    confluence of the Blue and the White Niles, now stretches only a mile
    or so down its main thoroughfare.

    Once, in this place, my family helped raise the cross and disturb the
    peace. We were known here, not for gentle natures or even temperaments,
    though we were among the town’s fi rst Christians. We walked
    these streets, played a role in determining where they would go. And
    then we used them to leave. Although our family tree still has olives on
    its branches, we follow the tradition of remaining mastourin (hidden,
    invisible, masked) when it comes to emotions, yet there are sometimes
    tears when we look back.

    Isber’s is one of the many houses left behind here, one of those we
    call mahjour, an Arabic word meaning abandoned, forsaken, lonely.
    The left over houses — spindly, breaking down, haunted — speak of
    Marjayoun’s lost heyday. For many who have walked by them through
    many years and wars and passings, they are friends. In their shattered
    windows, those who pass by see shiny panes and all that happened behind
    them. In the dark rooms they envision, not just scarred or peeling
    walls or dusty fl oors, but old acquaintances lighting lamps or stoking
    the coals of stoves.

    The story of the town is written in these places; it is a history of departures.
    I still think of them every day. The houses of those who left are
    everywhere, walked away from. There were letters for a while. She was
    my best friend.
    Those who stayed remember those we lost. We woke
    and saw that their place was empty.
    In these broken-down rooms one
    can hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognize
    them.

    Close your eyes and forget Marjayoun. The next thing you are crossing is
    the Litani Valley, over the mountains to Jezzine and then down the coast
    to Saida.

    My aunts and uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents, were
    part of a century-long wave of migration that occurred as the Ottoman
    Empire crumbled then fell, around the time of World War I. In
    the hinterland of what was then part of Greater Syria, known locally
    as bilad al-Sham, the war marked years of violent anarchy that made
    bloodshed casual. Disease was rife. So was famine, created by the British
    and French, who enforced a blockade of all Arab ports in the Mediterranean.
    Hundreds of thousands starved to death in Lebanon, Syria,
    Palestine, and beyond. Isber’s region was not spared. A reliable survey
    of 182 villages in the area showed that a fourth of the homes there had
    withered into wartime ruin, and more than a third of the people who
    had inhabited them had died.

    This horrific decade and its aftermath provoked villagers, including
    my family, to abandon their homes for locations from South America
    to West Africa to Australia, as well as a few neighborhoods in Oklahoma
    City, Oklahoma, and Wichita, Kansas. What became an era
    of departures ended with more Lebanese living in the diaspora than
    within the boundaries of 1920, when Europeans parceled out the unbroken
    expanse of the Ottomans.

    A green folder sits in my file cabinet. Family Records, it reads. Inside
    are citizenship and marriage certificates, my grandfather’s discharge
    orders from the U.S. Army, my grandmother’s story, written by one of
    her daughters, and a record of my grandfather’s journey from Beirut to
    Boston aboard a ship called the Latso. Creased and folded in thirds are
    family trees from both sides of my clan, the Samaras and the Shadids.
    The fi rst traces back to one Samara Samara, who was born in 1740 and
    emigrated in an epic exodus said to be led by women from the Houran
    of present-day Syria to the hills of Marjayoun. The other, much more
    complex, radiates into more than two hundred branches of names, insistently
    rendered in English and Arabic.

    The folder also contains pictures. In one, my maternal great-grandfather,
    Miqbal, boyish-looking then, wears an ill-fitting formal jacket
    with an oversize white rose in his lapel. Other photos portray wistful
    ladies and men with handlebar mustaches and tuft s of what appears
    to be quite unmanageable hair, all dressed as dandies in their Sunday
    best. There is one of the dry-goods store of an older Miqbal, where
    signs offered High Quality, Low Prices. But the English is uncertain:
    Help Us, Weel Help You. And the script is distinctly native, the graceful
    slope of Arabic, leaning to the left , imposed on the rigidity of Latin,
    standing straight.

    The America that drew my family was a journey of seven thousand
    miles, and although mountain roads and voyages in steerage were
    treacherous, the hardest were those first miles away from home, away
    from faces that would no longer be familiar. By the time we arrived in
    New York, or Texas, or Oklahoma, or wherever, much was lost. “Your
    first discovery when you travel,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “is that
    you do not exist.” In other words, it is not just the others who have
    been left behind; it is all of you that is known. Gone is the power or
    punishment of your family name, the hard-earned reputations of forebears,
    no longer familiar to anyone, not in this new place. Gone are
    those who understand how you became yourself. Gone are the reasons
    lurking in the past that might excuse your mistakes. Gone is everything
    beyond your name on the day of your arrival, and even that may
    ultimately be surrendered.

    So much had to be jettisoned for the sake of survival. Emotions were
    not acknowledged when so many others had suffered more. There was
    only survival for these travelers and faces to recall until the pictures
    they carried frayed or no longer held together. Though none of us
    could summon its image, Isber Samara’s house remained, saying his
    name and ours. It was a place to look back to, the anchor, all that was
    left there. To my family, separated or reunited, Isber’s house makes a
    statement: Remember the past. Remember Marjayoun. Remember who
    you are.


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